Review: The Work of Faith: Divine Grace and Human Agency in Martin Luther’s Preaching by Justin Nickel

[1] Followers of Luther began debating relationships between faith, ethics, and justification during Luther’s lifetime.  Heirs of Luther’s theological vision have never ceased to debate them.  Some Lutherans believe that ethical prescriptions beyond freely “serving one’s neighbor” out of a response to the Gospel, constitute works righteousness, leaving believers anxiously wondering if they have done enough to be “Christian.”  Others believe that teaching “justification by faith alone” leads to antinomianism, and an inability to articulate why and how Christian practices form believers for Christian life.

[2] The account of Luther’s theology given by Gerhard Forde starkly separated Law and Gospel focusing on God’s creation of faith through the believer’s encounter with the preached word.   Steven Paulson, Forde’s student, expanded that vision in a series of works on Luther’s notion of God.   Other schools of Luther interpretation have given other accounts of the Christian life.  For example, the “Finnish School” rooted an agent’s ethical disposition in faith’s ability to make the presence of Christ dwell ontologically in the believer, but this left unclear what agency was the believer’s and what agency was Christ’s, a problem that Nickel’s account avoids. Another strand of Lutheran ethical thinking has gained prominence among thinkers such as Erik Hermann and Gifford Grobien who sought to build bridges between Luther and virtue ethics, often drawing on the work of Stanley Hauerwas.

[3] Justin Nickel, Baxter and Frances Weant Professor of Lutheran Studies at Lutheran Southern Seminary, develops a nuanced portrait of Luther’s account of human agency in response to “radical Lutheranism” of Forde and Paulson.  He does a good job outlining their position in his opening chapter. Nickel wisely adds an exploration of the work of Yale ethicist Jennifer Herdt who doubts that Luther’s account of the ethical life leaves believers with actual ethical agency, though for different reasons than those offered by “radical Lutherans”. Nickel sets his project in opposition to some of the claims made by “radical Lutherans” but is silent on how his case relates to other recent treatments of ethical agency in Luther offered by Mary Gaebler and Sun-Young Kim among others.

[4] A limited number of treatises are typically used by those formulating Luther’s account of ethics, namely The Freedom of the Christian, The Bondage of the Will, and the 1535 Commentary on Galatians. Nickel does not revisit these texts but turns instead to Luther’s sermons, mining Luther’s instruction to his Wittenberg congregants for insights into Luther’s beliefs about human agency in relation to faith, ethics, and preaching.  Nickel argues that Luther’s use of classical rhetorical tropes while preaching show that his preaching was deliberate and plotted, he did not simply trust that the Holy Spirit would spontaneously give him words without his own preparation.  Luther’s practices show that he believed a well-crafted sermon could assist believers in hearing and grasping the Gospel by which the Holy Spirit would lead an individual to faith.

[5] Nickel carefully and methodically attends to the content and form of Luther’s sermons. He shows that Luther believed that individuals had greater agency in their ethical life than “radical Lutherans” claim. Nickel does not deny that justification by faith is important but resists the common corollary that nothing more can be said about agency in Luther’s corpus or that justification by faith means that only the Holy Spirit is acting through an individual without any action on their part.  Acknowledging the inconsistencies and contradictions in Luther’s corpus, Nickle notes that themes about the agency of the preacher and in the Christian life appear repeatedly in Luther’s sermons.  Our Christian freedom in response to God’s gift of justification may allow us a spirit to freely serve the neighbor, however as, this freedom does not tell us how to act on that love toward the neighbor. Nickel argues that part of what we are given by the grace of justification is a renewed relationship to the Law, allowing the Law to serve as a guide for conduct in a way that aids individuals and communities rather than driving them to despair.  Love made possible by our response to justification allows us to act, but human agency, reason, and prudence tell us how to act in love. The ethical contents of our actions in any specific situation are not given to us by the Holy Spirit alone.

[6] This means believers have real agency in their ethical lives and must be formed to understand how to best serve the neighbor in love.  Which is to say, their motivations may be formed by the Holy Spirit, but their actions must also be guided by reason. Perhaps this is why we need a Lutheran theory of action in the same way that actions are given complex descriptors in thinkers such as Aquinas.

[7] This review does not do justice to Nickel’s careful, complex, and interlocking argument.  However, he convincingly shows that Luther’s sermons clearly suggest that believers have moral agency, as do preachers when they spend time crafting sermons. While we trust the promise of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit transforms our desires, allowing us to have a renewed relationship to the Law that informs our service to the neighbor.  While grace can create faith, a winsome sermon can help us find the journey of faith a compelling one.  Nickel recognizes that Luther’s depiction of human agency and Christian formation cannot be easily translated into an existing thought stream. He has made an important and innovative contribution to understanding the full nature of Luther’s thinking about agency and ethics, adding an important confessional voice to one of the most debated topics in Christian ethics today.


Aaron Klink

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.  He received his MAR is Systematic Theology from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, his M.Div. from Yale and a ThM with a concentration in Ethics from Duke Divinity School.